The Uttar Banga Anath Ashram ( North Bengal Orphanage)
Uma Mallick looks like an ordinary Bengali Housewife. She wears a standard cotton sari, vermillion on her forehead and travels clinging to her husband’s motorcycle as he whizzes past in Siliguri’s notorious lanes.
However she is anything but that. Uma is the founder and the livewire of the Uttar Banga Anath Ashram (North Bengal Orphanage). Lest that makes you conjure up an image of a gleaming building full of well dressed children being looked after by an army of attendants, let me disillusion you. Her orphanage looks after girl children (she only takes in girls), and they are housed in a tiny postage stamp sized piece of land that was donated to her by a kind soul. Or perhaps not so kind soul, because the land was already occupied by a group of Mastaans, ( local goons) who could only be induced to vacate by a long and desperate struggle, involving a hunger strike by the children, and the help of local well-wishers.
The house is basically a brick structure covered by a tin roof. There is one long dormitory where the children sleep and study. Water supply is from a hand pumped tube well and there is one proper toilet and one makeshift arrangement for emergencies. And here she lives with her family of 28 children all of whom call her Ma.
The orphanage takes in strays; I use the word advisedly, in shame, as that is exactly what the children are. The oldest child, now hardly that, is 17. She is blind, and came to Uma 8 years ago. She was sent by a school teacher who requested Uma to give her a home as her aged father did not have the wherewithal to support her any more.
The youngest is 22 months old. She sleeps peacefully, a cherubic smile on her face, unaware that she was abandoned by her parents in Siliguri Station. The local police handed her over to Uma and here she has been ever since.
Uma is a magician, in the literal sense of the term. She raises money for the orphanage by doing magic shows. As she entertains, at the back of her mind are the problems of her children, all of whom are dependent on her for sustenance, even at the subsistence level in which they live. She had learnt magic from her guru as a girl in Cooch Behar. Her father was a refugee from East Bengal. She grew up in the Bengal countryside, her father’s small business in bamboo and other agricultural products provided a secure, though not luxurious livelihood. She was married off at 15, to Samar, now her helper and soul mate. She first became involved in social work as she calls it in 2000, when she set began to work in Premdanga, a day care centre for children in Mathabhanga, a subdivisional town close to Cooch Behar. Later she moved to Siliguri, where she operated from rented premises in Subahas Pally and now she has been able to move into her own place in Ghughumari, but in conditions of grinding poverty.
I know her for the past five years or so. The first time I met her was when the Local Rotary Club of which I was a member feted her on the occasion of Womens’ Day. My wife and I visited her place and were bowled over at her commitment and her indomitable spirit and willingness to fight against any odds. We began to help her with small amounts of money and old clothes. We also managed to get some friends to donate small amounts. She also has many small donors who help her, some with a bag of rice, another with clothes and so on.
The children are well fed, that is they get basic food. All of them go to school except one who is mentally retarded. They get basic health care, courtesy some helpful doctors who are willing to see the children free of charge. But the children could really do with much more.
She spends Rs 40,000 on her charges every month. This adds up to about Rs !,400 per child, reduced to dollars, it is only 26 dollars a month to look after a child. The money comes from her own sources, and whatever she can scrounge out from the bureaucrats who run the welfare arms of the State. And of course she depend heavily on well wishers like us.
I was wondering whether we could do something to relieve her of the daily tension of making ends meet. If we could get together just 40 people who would donate Rs 1000 ( $50) a month we could provide for all the children as they are being looked after today. This would make it possible to try to make improvements in their living conditions, give them better education and perhaps some creature comforts that all children deserve.
Nipon is helping me set up a website for them. We hope then to collect money that will help them. As you can see from the pictures, every little helps!